Sunday, April 7, 2019

Notes on the Saturday Sessions

General Conference season is underway again and we have yet another weak lineup for opening day.  There were a few unremarkable entries on the scoreboard—Oaks thinks there are better things we could be doing with our time than watching TV, Carl B. Cook thinks it's a miracle when multiple boys are baptized, and Holland felt it necessary to have a meeting about how we need to have fewer meetings.  

But let's get to the real highlights.

We need to show our beliefs through the way we live.
—Ulisses Soares, Saturday morning session
This doesn't sound bad when I take it out of context...but he goes on to stress that, in particular, the belief we need to model in our behavior is that we sustain the prophet.

Didn't we just go through a whole thing about how we need to emphasize Christ in the name of the church because that's what this religion is all about?  Who cares about our toothless declarations of support for a leader we had no say in selecting?  Shouldn't we be focusing on living in a way that shows we believe in the kind and compassionate teachings of that ancient Messiah whose name currently escapes me?

Jesus.  Right, his name was Jesus.  I keep confusing him with Mormon for some reason.

It is hard to understand all the reasons why some people take another path.  The best we can do in these circumstances is just to love and embrace them, pray for their well-being, and seek for the Lord's help to know what to do and say.  Sincerely rejoice with them in their successes.  Be their friends and look for the good in them.  We should never give up on them but preserve our relationships.  Never reject or misjudge them.  Just love them.
—Ulisses Soares, Saturday morning session

It shouldn't have needed to be said, but it is needed and it is important that he said it.  It really makes it sound like kicking your apostate children out of the house or keeping gay family members at arm's length isn't okay—which is something that some members really need to hear.  Also encouraging is that the phrase "all the reasons" subtly implies that people leave because of complex motives—not merely because they were offended or lazy or wanted to sin.

If we are not careful in living our covenants with exactness, our casual efforts may eventually lead us into forbidden paths or to join with those who have already entered the great and spacious building.  If not careful, we may even drown in the depths of a filthy river.
—Becky Craven, Saturday morning session
I just know she was jamming to Pink Floyd before she stepped up to the podium:  "One slip, and down the hole we fall/It seems to take no time at all/A momentary lapse of reason/That binds a life for life."  

But seriously, though, this is a horrible thing to teach people.  Life is difficult enough without someone convincing you that you're living on a tightrope across a bubbling lava pit.  The central concept of her talk was that if you almost do everything the gospel teaches, you'll be almost following the iron rod, but you'll be just a tad off so that you'll walk right past the Tree of Life and into the fetid water.  

You know in those thriller movies when the hero is inching wire cutters into the innards of an explosive to disarm it?  And the director makes sure to get a nice shot of the beads of sweat forming on his brow or maybe him biting his lip in concentration?  And the score is suffocatingly tense to really drive home the point of how nerve-wracking and life-threatening the situation is?  What Craven is really doing—I'm debating whether I should make a joke about her name or whether that's too ad hominem for a church leader I've never heard of.  What Craven is really doing here is shaking the action hero roughly by the shoulders in the middle of this scene and shouting, "Wow, you better not cut the wrong wire or we'll all die!"  You think our action hero's hands are going to be steady after she scares the shit out of him?

When people are already trying to do the right thing, how is ramping up the anxiety quotient about everything going to help them be better at doing the right thing?  I mean, sure, it'll probably keep a lot of people paying their tithes and fast offerings, but is it actually going to make them better people?

Any time we say "however," "except," or "but," when it applies to following the counsels of our prophet leaders or living the gospel carefully, we are in fact saying "that counsel does not apply to me."  We can rationalize all we want, but the fact is there is not a right way to do the wrong thing.
—Becky Craven, Saturday morning session
I disagree.  Ulisses Soares just did the wrong thing the right way.  He was preaching in support of a wrong religion, but he was really nice about it.  In fact, if everyone in his audience followed his advice about loving apostates, Soares could accomplish a lot of good.  It wouldn't mean he wasn't propping up a moneygrubbing ecclesiastical tyranny though.

But what really bothers me is this distaste for complexity.  "However," "except," and "but" are pretty important words.  They allow us to express support for our beliefs and still acknowledge that there are other concerns, other approaches, or unresolved problems.  Using these words not only allows people to share their uniquely personal opinions, but they probably help keep some people in the church—because, for a religion that has so much trouble making up its mind about gay people, black people, polygamy, translation processes, and so many other things, forcing people to make black-or-white, on-or-off, fact-or-fraud decisions probably isn't going to work out as well as the apostles would like.

 Why had God abandoned him in his righteous desire?
Brooke P. Hales, Saturday morning session
The person's righteous desire in this story was a professional position he felt he'd more than earned.  Imagine how exhausting life must be when every setback makes you question why you've been abandoned by an all-powerful being who's supposed to be watching over you.

I've failed to get jobs I felt I deserved too.  And you know what?  Sometimes you don't get the job because there's someone even more qualified, or because the person hiring doesn't recognize real talent when he sees it, or because you grossly misjudged the strength of your qualifications and the strength of your interviewing skills.  God allows children to starve and to get sold into sexual slavery.  I think it's fair to say that he's not necessarily going to give you everything you want and I think it's also fair to say that if that's your biggest complaint, you have no grounds to consider yourself "abandoned."

Tell about the little children who stood in front of the congregation and sang with eagerness how they are trying to be like Jesus.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Saturday morning session

Uchtdorf is trying to teach us to spread the gospel in ways that are conversationally organic instead of in ways that make us seem like pushy fundamentalists.  This is not what he's accomplishing, though.  In all the times I've asked coworkers about how their weekends went, not once has one of them shared details about what the children at their church were doing on Sunday.  If someone were to follow the suggested script he's providing, they're going to convince their friends they belong to a cult.  I suppose, if the person's audience is made up of die-hard Christians, they may succeed in dispelling the misunderstanding that Mormonism is not a form of Christianity.  But I don't think we'll be convincing people to come get baptized with these kinds of tactics.

This is not "natural" or "normal," Dieter.  People are going to stop asking Mormons about their weekends.

 If someone is on a list that says "not interested," don't give up.  People change.
W. Christopher Wadell, Saturday morning session
The speaker attributed this quote to someone else, but he presented the line as an admirable philosophy.

When I went to a concert a few months ago, apparently my ticket purchase put me on some stupid list and the venue started calling me every few weeks to offer vacation packages.  After receiving one too many obnoxious voicemails, I called the number back to explain that I wasn't interested.  And they gave me kind of the same approach as Wadell's:  if we keep you on the call list, then when you do want to go on a cruise, we can help you get a great deal!
Yes.  People change.  But if I ever decide to go on a cruise, I know exactly who I won't be calling—the obnoxious people who won't leave me alone and don't know how to take no for an answer.  If someone's on a ward list that says they're not interested, let them stay not interested.  If they come back to you and express an interest again (because people change), then hit them with both barrels of your religious sales pitch.  But don't blast a guy full of spiritual buckshot if he didn't willingly present himself as a target.

Sure, Wadell, keep them on the list.  But respect people's wishes—especially if that's a do not contact list. 

They began to see each other as classes, above and below each other.
—Henry B. Eyring, Saturday morning session
He's speaking of the prideful Book of Mormon peoples here.  And you can probably guess where I'm going with this, too, are LGBT people not second-class citizens in Mormonism?  How were members of African descent not second-class citizens in Mormonism prior to 1978?  How are non-priesthood-holding women who gain access to the celestial kingdom through their husbands and are fated to eternally bear his children while he creates worlds not of a lower order than the Mormon men?  

Loving God and loving our neighbors is a doctrinal foundation of ministering, home-centered church-supported learning, sabbath day spiritual worship, and the work of salvation on both sides of the veil supported in the relief societies and the elders quorums.
M. Russell Ballard, Saturday afternoon session
You can probably guess where I'm going on this one too.

Aren't lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people our neighbors?  The way they're treated now doesn't seem very loving, and the way they were treated a week ago was even less loving.  In fact, I'd say—bear with me, here—I'd say that the treatment was...hateful.  Which is pretty weird, considering that's the opposite of loving.

I guess the relief societies and elders quorums must've dropped the ball on that one.

Let's not complicate things with additional meetings, expectations, or requirements.  Keep it simple.  It is in simplicity that you will find the peace, joy, and happiness that I have been talking about.
 —M. Russell Ballard, Saturday afternoon session
Haha, but Ballard, an overabundance of meetings, expectations, and requirements is the basic building block of Mormon existence!

But also, I take issue with simplicity generating peace, joy, and happiness.  Not everybody needs the same things to be happy, there, Champ.  Some people do dream of their own little Walden Pond, but other people thrive on chaos and complexity.  We don't all find our centers by stretching out a tropical beach in a modest swimsuit with a non-alcoholic drink in our hands.

Hasn't Ballard traveled the world and met people from a bunch of different cultures?  Weird that he hasn't figured out that different people feel fulfilled by different things.

A church that does not have a paid clergy, but where members themselves accept assignments and responsibilities.
 —Mathias Held, Saturday afternoon session
This was mentioned in a list of things the young Held and his wife learned while trying to rationally consider joining the church.  His point was "ye shall know them by their fruits."  Interesting that a guy advocating that the actions of an institution point to that institution's value is up there on the stand lying about the same institution.  The fruit of this particular tree is...deceit.  Yummy.

This church doesn't have a paid clergy, but that's only true when you don't count all the clergy who are paid.

Only the combination of both views can give us the true and complete picture of all truth, and of everything we experience in our lives....
—Mathias Held, Saturday afternoon session
Okay, so this ocular object lesson of his is just a mess.  Here's why.

He's trying to say that we have two ways of seeing the truth:  rationally and spiritually.  He's trying to equate this to eyesight in that you can see fine with one of the two, but with both you can see depth.  The problems begin when he disembowels his own metaphor by quoting Moroni 10:5, which explains that through the power of the Holy Ghost, you can know the truth of all things.  The Holy Ghost, of course, represents the spiritual eye.

You can see fine with one eye, but seeing with two is better.  Except if you only have one eye, the rational eye is basically useless because it can't see the truth of all things.  So if you're going to be stuck with only one eye, it had better be the spiritual one.  But if you can know the truth of all things with only one of the eyes, then you don't need a second eye for depth perception because you can see everything you need to.  This makes the rational eye completely unnecessary, and therefore the entire fucking metaphor is pointless.

This is my version of his analogy, broken down in a way that doesn't try to sugarcoat the fact that he doesn't actually want us to trust in rationalism:

You have two credit cards.  The Discover has a limit of $1000 and the Visa has a limit of $2000.  Your objective is to buy a computer.  The computer costs $1500.  You can't buy it with the Discover.  You can only buy it with the Visa.  There's no way to purchase the computer without involving the Visa.  But wow, look how high your credit limit goes when you add the limit of the two cards together!  It's meaningless as far as your ability to acquire the desired machine goes, but doesn't $3000 sound like a really fantastic number?

The arguments of the adversary are always the same:  listen to these voices from two thousand years ago.  You cannot know things that you do not see.  Whatever a person does is no crime.  It is not reasonable that such a being as Christ would be the son of God.  What you believe is a foolish tradition.  Sounds like today, doesn't it?
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Andersen wins Most Punchable Face of the Day.

Okay, let's dive headfirst into this pool of rhetorical excrement.  The argument that the arguments of the adversary are always the same is always the same.  If you had to go back and re-read that sentence, that brings a smile to my face.  Confusingly worded as it was, it was a fun way for me to say that the response of "these criticisms are nothing new" is tired and overused—by church apologists and church opponents.  Let's be honest and admit to ourselves that people are coming up with new arguments and new approaches all the time.

I, as one of the people who probably represents the adversary in Andersen's book, don't tend to advocate for listening to voices from two thousand years ago.  I suppose I do often make arguments along the lines of "you cannot know things that you do not see" and "it's not reasonable to believe the supernatural story of Christ" and "what you believe is a filthy goddamn lie."  But "whatever a person does is no crime"?  Hold up—I don't think there is a very large portion of the human population who would agree with that statement, so maybe good old Lucifer isn't really hitting his numbers on that one.

But the most bizarre and maddening part of this quote is his ridicule of those who urge you to listen to these voices from two thousand years ago.  Okay, so should we not be reading the scriptures, then?  Don't those contain words that supposedly come from people who lived in the distant past?  Does the era in which the words were spoken determine their spiritual validity?  What planet do you live on, Neil?

As you blithely compare the Biblical arguments to today's and pause for laughter with that smarmy grin, I can't help but wonder how we ever got to a point at which this kind of inane drivel passes for apostolic oratory.

I did not know the subject of Elder Hale's talk until he just gave it.  But didn't he teach us beautifully about the eye of faith?
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session

That delivery was terrible.  Are we trying to manufacture our own little miracle here?  Like, "oh, wow, look how well these two general conference talks align, the Lord must truly be inspiring these men to talk about the pressing issues of our day!"  Come on.

Especially since you're about to use the phrase "eye of faith" again in this talk.  You really expect us to believe that this wasn't planned and rehearsed?  Try not to look at the teleprompter while you lie to us, okay?

Should we really be surprised when the Lord's prophet declares his will, and for some, questions remain?  Of course, some reject the voice of the prophets immediately.  But others prayerfully ponder their honest questions—questions that will be settled with patience and an eye of faith.
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Okay, first of all, there are a lot of issues with vague pronoun usage in here.  It's very easy for me to intentionally misinterpret the first line without the Ensign transcript capitalizing the H in "His."  Because I fully believe that the prophet is declaring his—that is, the prophet's—will.  And are the people who don't immediately reject the voice of the prophets pondering their own questions or are they pondering the questions of the people who were doing the rejecting?

Poor writing aside, this feels like it might be aimed at the reversal of the November 2015 policy.  In case anyone was having trouble processing that jarring and revealing (not revelatory) turn of events, remember that if you're thinking more than you're praying, you're doing it wrong.  And there's a good explanation, but you can't have it now, so just have faith and be patient.

I don't know if I'm really getting across how much I hated this talk.

One purpose of prophets is to help us in resolving sincere questions. 
—Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Are you kidding me?  Name one time Nelson has done this!

Oh, right, I forgot about that time when the prophet spent ten minutes of General Conference explaining exactly why it wasn't racist that the church kept black people from ordinances they'd need for exaltation.  And the time Nelson debunked the CES Letter, point by point, in a public YouTube broadcast.  Or when the President of the Church's official Twitter page spent a day putting out tweets that detailed exactly how Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and responding to members' questions for clarification on the subject.

Seriously, though, when Ballard and Oaks have a chuckle in their livestreamed Q&A session about how they won't be tackling some of the tougher submissions and when Cook keeps passing troubling church history questions off to church historians at his Kirtland Temple presentation and when Rasband [correction:  Renlund] talks about having read so much church history but keeps referring his friend Steven to a historian to address historical concerns, it kind of starts to look like maybe the church leadership doesn't want to even nudge resolutions to sincere questions toward us with a ten-foot pole.

Because the answers are radioactive and they know they can't get too close.

One purpose of prophets is to help us in resolving sincere questions?  Give me a fucking break.

One friend of many years, whom I admire greatly, is not married because of same-sex attraction.  He has remained true to his temple covenants, has expanded his creative and professional talents,  and has served nobly in both the church and the community.  He recently said to me, "I can sympathize with those in my situation who choose not to keep the law of chastity in the world in which we live, but didn't Christ ask us to be not of this world?  It is clear that God's standards are different from those of the world.
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Okay, so "not married because of same-sex attraction" is a repulsively passive phrase.  I think if Andersen were to say that his friend is gay, he might vomit all over the podium—although, in a figurative sense, he was kind of doing that anyway.  But he treats his friend's homosexuality not like it's part of the man's identity, but like it's some kind of ethereal circumstance haunting the man's life.  Jesus.  He's gay, dude.  It's okay.  You can say it.  I'd even settle for you calling him a "confirmed homsexual" because that would have been a little less awkward.

He refers to this man as his friend, which is cool, I guess.  And he also says he admires him greatly, which is nice.  But then he keeps talking about other good things and it starts to feel a lot like, "He's still a really great guy even though he has the dreaded same-sex attraction!"  I suppose we could give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and decide that he's only trying to illustrate that point fully for an audience that may be hesitant to accept that a gay person can be a good person.  But it's Andersen's organization that instilled that hesitancy in the audience and considering how much horseshit he's hurled at us in the last few minutes, I'm not particularly interested in giving Andersen the benefit of the doubt.  I think he's basically doing the homophobic equivalent of "I can't be racist because some of my best friends are black."

But getting to the meat of this excerpt, yes, it is clear that the Mormon God's standards are different from those of the world.  They're worse.  They're lesser.  They're inferior.  They're shittier.  If there is an afterlife—obviously not the Mormon one—think how devastated this man's going to be when he learns that he didn't actually need to starve himself of a full and fulfilling romantic relationship for his entire life.  Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other trait, nobody deserves to be forced to live without hope of that kind of intimate human connection.

Some would say, "You don't understand my situation."  I may not.  But I testify there is one who does understand.  There is one who knows your burdens.  Because of his sacrifice made in the garden and on the cross. As you seek him and keep his commandments, I promise you that he will bless you and lift the burdens too heavy to bear alone. He will give you eternal friends and opportunities to serve.  More importantly, he will fill you with the powerful spirit of the Holy Ghost and shine his heavenly approval upon you.
—Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
He's still talking about those slimy same-sex attraction sufferers here, by the way.

He freely admits that he "may not" understand the situation of an LGBT person who is essentially forced to stifle part of who they are in order to achieve eternal exaltation.  That's better than I was expecting.  But it points to another problem:  if you guys don't really understand the situation of gay members, why the fuck are you making policies about them?  How do you expect the families of people who have taken their own lives because of the way Mormonism treats LGBT members to respond to an admission that you don't really understand what's going on?  You're messing with people's lives and people's families, but you can't be bothered to fully wrap your brain around the complexities of the issue or to bother educating yourself to fill in the gaps in your understanding.  

I don't know how else to say it, man—that kind of makes you an asshole.  A litany of platitudes about lifting burdens and heavenly approvals doesn't do anything to reverse, mitigate, or even acknowledge the havoc you've wreaked on your fellow human beings.

If we spend too much time in faithless places, seemingly well-intended voices deprive us of the spiritual oxygen we need. 
David P. Homer, Saturday afternoon session
Not to scare you or anything, but if you actually hang out with sinners like Jesus did, you'll asphyxiate. 

Keeping your promises [to sustain your leaders] will take unshakable faith that the Lord called them.  Keeping those promises will also bring eternal happiness.  Not keeping them will bring sorrow to you and to those you love—and even losses beyond your power to imagine.
Henry B. Eyring, Priesthood session

What the fuck?  When did Eyring become so...dark?

Just so everybody's clear, an apostle is threatening everyone that if you vote to sustain the prophet and then later you say something bad about him or you forget to pray for him, then you will suffer losses beyond your power to imagine.  Eyring has gone full-blown Bond villain.  I don't even know what to do with this. I guess maybe the safest thing to do is not to vote to sustain your church leaders.  Because then you won't risk suffering some ominously nonspecific fate.

I mean, Andersen said about fifty things that pissed me off, but this Eyring quote was the first thing that made me jerk my head back to the screen like, "Did I really just hear that?"

President George Q. Cannon gave a warning that I pass on to you as my own.  I believe he spoke the truth:  "God has chosen his servants.  He claims it as his prerogative to condemn them if they need condemnation.  He has not given it to us individually to censure and condemn them.  No man, however strong he may be in the faith, however high in the priesthood, can speak evil of the Lord's anointed and find fault with God's authority on earth without incurring his displeasure.  The Holy Spirit will withdraw himself from such a man and he will go into darkness...."
Henry B. Eyring, Priesthood session
Yeah, there's a problem with this.  God seems to neglect to condemn his servants when they so obviously need it.

I mean, he didn't condemn the first twelve prophets for instituting and teaching and perpetuating racism.   He didn't condemn Joseph Smith for trying to assassinate the governor of Missouri, he didn't condemn Brigham Young for teaching the apparently false doctrine of blood atonement, he didn't condemn Wilford Woodruff for lying about polygamy in a very public declaration or Gordon B. Hinckley for lying about polygamy and eternal progression in a very public television interview, and he hasn't condemned any modern prophet for a failure to address issues of sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, and transphobia with appropriate compassion.  If God isn't going to exercise his prerogative, are we really supposed to just sit here twiddling our thumbs while immoral things happen in God's name?  We really aren't supposed to speak evil of the Lord's anointed under any circumstances?

I guess it's nice to have a second source (with support from a current apostle) for this mindset.

The forces of evil have never raged more forcefully than they do today. 
Russell M. Nelson, Priesthood session 
Wait, wasn't evil raging so forcefully at some point that God had to take drastic action?  Wasn't it so bad that there was literally only one righteous family left on the planet?  Wasn't there something about that in the scriptures?  Something about a flood?

But Nelson doesn't care about scripture.  He just wants to keep his followers scared enough that they'll continue being his followers. 

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